CRISPR cracks open the door to a future of human mutants. Worried?

Surreal artwork in the hotel lobby—a gorilla peeking out of a peeled orange, smoking a cigarette; an astronaut riding a cyborg giraffe—was the backdrop for bombshell news rocking the world. In November 2018, Hong Kong’s Le Méridien Cyberport hotel became the epicenter of controversy about Jiankui He, a Chinese researcher who was staying there when a journalist revealed he had created the world’s first “edited” babies. Select experts were gathering in the hotel for the Second International Summit on Human Genome Editing—a meeting that had been called to deliberate about the future of the human species. As CNN called the experiment “monstrous,” as heated discussions took place in labs and living rooms around the globe, He sat uncomfortably on a couch in the lobby.

He was trying to explain himself to Jennifer Doudna, the chemist at UC Berkeley, who is one of the pioneers behind CRISPR, a new genetic-engineering tool. Doudna had predicted that CRISPR would be used to direct the evolution of our species,* writing, “We possess the ability to edit not only the DNA of every living human but also the DNA of future generations.” As He went through his laboratory protocol, describing how he had manipulated the genes of freshly fertilized human eggs with CRISPR, Doudna shook her head. She knew that this moment might be coming someday, but she imagined that it would be in the far future. Amid the bustle of hotel guests, science fiction began to settle into the realm of established fact.

Credit: St. Martin’s Publishing Group

I was checking in to Le Méridien as the story broke and first heard rumors about He’s babies while chatting in the elevator with other summit delegates. We had come to Hong Kong to discuss the science, ethics, and governance of CRISPR and an assortment of lesser-known tools for tinkering with DNA. Struggling to overcome intense jet lag—fresh off planes from Europe, the United States, and other parts of Asia—we listened to speculation in the hotel’s hallways while swimming through reality, caught between waking and dreaming.

Opening the door to my hotel room, a luxury suite courtesy of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, I hunted for reliable sources of information online. I had been invited to speak on the research ethics panel, after Jiankui He, so I needed to play catch-up, fast. I found YouTube videos posted by He’s lab just hours before, offering details of the experiment. Posing in front of his laboratory equipment, with a broad smile on his face, He announced to the world: “Two beautiful little Chinese girls, named Lulu and Nana, came crying into this world as healthy as any other babies a few weeks ago.” The experiment aimed to delete a single gene with CRISPR. This new technique of genetic surgery, He claimed, could produce children who were resistant to the HIV virus.

Hunched over the glowing screen of my laptop, I perused the opinions that were just starting to form. Chinese media pundits suggested that a Nobel Prize might be in the making, saying that He was following in the footsteps of scientists who produced the first controversial “test-tube baby” in 1978. A raucous debate was taking place on Weibo—China’s prominent social media platform—as 1.9 billion people viewed the hashtag #首例免疫艾滋病基因 编辑婴儿(#FirstGeneEditedHIVImmuneBabies). Some Chinese influencers were praising Jiankui He as a national scientific hero. Others condemned him, saying that it was shameful to treat children like guinea pigs. Journalists were starting to discover Dr. He’s ties to biotechnology companies—one reportedly worth US$312 million—and alleged that there were serious financial conflicts of interest.

Anyone who follows the news knows the basic story. Over the next few days, Jiankui He experienced a meteoric rise to fame, followed by a dramatic fall from grace. Eventually, he lost his university job and was thrown in jail. A district court in China sentenced him to three years in prison for practicing medicine without a license, denouncing his pursuit of “personal fame and profit.”

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